UHP's Lori DelVaglio (far right), Melanie Perez (second row, right), and Pierre LePage (top row, second from right) were among the volunteers at Ivanna Eudora Kean High School on the island of St. Thomas. (Photo provided by Pierre LePage)
Three UHP members are back to work after volunteering in the Virgin Islands to provide hearing and vision screenings to more than 10,000 school children in two weeks.
Parts of the U.S. territory are still recovering from the two Category 5 hurricanes that struck in 2017. Public school enrollment declined by nearly 20% and the buildings that weren’t destroyed continue to struggle with shortages of staff and supplies.
“Many schools were destroyed during the hurricanes so there were many crowded classrooms, some including 28 to 30 children,” says Pierre LePage, a nurse in UConn Health’s West Hartford office. “School conditions are not great – some where you could not drink from the water fountains, others where teachers have to supply their own toilet supplies.”
Pierre, along with application analyst Lori DelVaglio and ophthalmology technician Melanie Perez were part of a group of more than 40 health care professionals from throughout the United States who volunteered in St. Croix, St. Thomas, or both.
“I decided to volunteer my time to help the less fortunate due to economic status and natural disasters because my family has suffered from the same situations,” says Melanie, who was in St. Thomas for the second week.
“These children have been through a lot,” says Lori, who also was in St. Thomas for a week. “Two hurricanes in two weeks, where the howling wind damaged some of their eardrums, affecting their hearing. Others lost their glasses or they were left behind when they had to flee their homes for safety. Yet every child greeted us with ‘good morning’ or ‘good afternoon.’”
A typical day would start with a 6:30 departure by van from the hotel to a school, followed by a full day of screening an average 700 to 800 students, then back to the hotel for a daily debriefing.
“We discussed what went well, what we could do better,” says Pierre, who spent a week each in St. Croix and St. Thomas. “If you had any energy left at 4:30, you could enjoy the beautiful island.”
The mission is part of an ongoing effort to provide recovery assistance spearheaded by AFT, which represents more than 1.7 million education, health care, and public employees from more than 3,000 local affiliates in the U.S., including UHP.
“It was extremely rewarding, especially when we received an outpouring of love and respect not only from the children we serviced but the community as a whole,” Melanie says.
“We met some very resilient children who have lost so much, yet they were happy, thankful, and very respectful,” Pierre says. “It was so rewarding. The children take your heart away, one story after another. I would certainly do it again.”
The next phase of the mission is to work with local government and other partners to provide eyeglasses and hearing aids to the students who need them.
“I encountered the sweetest, most well-mannered children I have ever met, as well as the most loving and supportive teachers, school nurses and administrators,” Lori says. “I’m so glad I did it – it was life-changing!”